Health Concerns for Barbecue Enthusiasts
Everyone knows that barbecues are bad for you; don't they? Actually, for a number of years lots of
people have said that barbecues are bad for you, but that doesn't necessarily amount to the same
thing. Buried among all the factoids and 'slow news day' media sensationalising there are a few
genuine risks that should be taken into account. They don't mean that we shouldn't barbecue, but
they do recommend a sensible precaution or two.
Much of the ranting about fuel is reserved for charcoal and it's true that as a carbon-based fuel,
lump charcoal and the briquettes do pollute the air. The carbon they give off when burned
increases the greenhouse effect and the microscopic soot particles can worsen heart and lung
conditions. In Canada, the government even requires bags of charcoal to carry a health warning.
That said, if you can obtain charcoal for your charcoal BBQ, from sustainable sources, that is,
woodlands and forest that are replanted as trees are felled, then you know that somewhere a new
tree is absorbing the carbon that you've just released and the books are balanced: carbon neutral.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the charcoal sold in the UK is produced abroad in countries with
no real approach to sustainability but British charcoal from green sources is available if you look for
it. Briquettes are apparently a little better because they contain sawdust (which is good recycling
of wood waste) but they can also contain other materials – starch, limestone, sodium nitrate,
borax, and coal dust – which are not so healthy.
OK, the vegetarians have the last laugh here because all the health risks in the cooking are about
meat. According to the Harvard Medical School, at high temperatures a chemical reaction occurs
that creates heterocyclic amines (or HCAs) which are thought to be carcinogenic. Not only does
this happen in the meat, but also any fat which has dripped onto the coals, burns and forms HCAs
and the particles are carried on the smoke back up to your delicious burger – double whammy. The
longer the meat is cooked, the more HCAs are formed (which presents you with a fine balance
really: overcooking is carcinogenic, undercooking risks food poisoning; not a lot of room for error).
Harvard suggests the following tips for safer barbecuing:
Cook in smaller pieces, there's less cooking time and they require a lower temperature. So
that's quarter- instead half-pounders, then.
Use good quality, lean meat, less dripping fat means less flare-ups and therefore less smoke.
Microwave meat for two minutes before placing on the grill to cause a potential reduction of
HCAs of up to 90%. This will no doubt offend the barbeque purist, but why not try it once and
see what difference it makes, if any.
Turn the meat often; making sure that neither side becomes too hot. That one doesn't sound
too bad, most barbecuers like moving the meat around.
There are two main hazards here, neither of which will greatly ruffle the feathers of the true BBQ
enthusiast (very few people are attracted to barbecuing because they actually want E.coli).
Cross-contamination should be avoided. This can happen when you've been handling raw meat
and then go straight to the cooked meat without washing your hands. One of the benefits of
cooking meat is that it kills the germs in the raw product. By not washing your hands, you're just
reintroducing the germs. Cross-contamination can also occur if you use the same plates, utensils or
surfaces (such as chopping boards) for both raw and cooked food. It's much easier and safer to
have separate equipment for the two stages. Also, if you have marinated raw meat, don't then use
the leftover marinade on the final, cooked product.
The second issue is undercooking, easily done on BBQs if you're not careful. In a way, it's the same
issue as cross-contamination, if the meat isn't cooked all the way through and the middle is still
raw, then the germs are still there. In order to avoid, only cook over the coals when they are
glowing hot and have that white, powdery look; always defrost fully any meat from the freezer
before letting it anywhere near the grill; and turn the meat regularly to ensure that it's cooked
evenly. The Food Standards Agency recommendation is that the meat is safe to serve and eat only
it's hot all the way through (you could invest in a meat thermometer which would also help
when there is no pink showing;
when the juices run clear.
Some allowances can be made for those that like their steak rare as long as the outside has been
properly cooked, at least killing the bacteria on the outside of the meat. Sausages and burgers,
however, because they are made from minced or processed meat have to be well-cooked to be
All in all, plenty of concerns but only a few reasonable safety precautions to take and you can
continue to enjoy your barbecue in peace.